Dr. Charles L Sifford, who broke the PGA’s color barrier in 1961, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2014.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. It was established in 1963 by President Kennedy.
Sifford was the first African American to compete in a PGA event following the 1961 repeal of the “Caucasian Only” membership clause. He also was the first African American to win a PGA sponsored event. Sifford was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004, and was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree by the University of St. Andrews in 2006.
Sifford’s recognition was the work of a large group of collaborators, including the PGA TOUR, USGA, World Golf Foundation, 64 Members of Congress and athletes including Tiger Woods, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Russell and Jim Brown.
Sifford is the third golfer to receive the medal, after Arnold Palmer (2004) and Jack Nicklaus (2005).
Born in 1922 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sifford worked as a caddie as a youth. He shot par for the first time at the age of thirteen.
In the 1950s, Sifford dominated the Negro National Open, winning the title six times. To make his living in golf, he played non-PGA sanctioned events and taught lessons.
Sifford also garnered the support of other African American athletes, such as Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson. Robinson also warned Sifford of the obstacles he would face. Like Robinson, Sifford would suffer harassment and death threats.
Louis’ support is particularly notable. In 1952 on a sponsor’s exemption into the San Diego Open, Louis became the first African American to play in a PGA TOUR event. Louis also financially supported aspiring African American golfers including Sifford, Bill Spiller, Ted Rhodes, Howard Wheeler, James Black, and Clyde Martin.
In 1957, Sifford qualified for the Long Beach Open. In winning the event, he became the first African American golfer to win a PGA co-sponsored tournament. In 1961, pressure from the California Attorney General pushed the PGA into admitting Sifford full membership on the Tour.
When Sifford won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open, he became the first African American to win a fully sanctioned PGA event. Sifford won again in 1969 at the Los Angeles Open.
Sifford’s career record also includes two seconds, five thirds and $350,000 in prize money.
Sifford’s autobiography is entitled: Just Let Me Play: The Story of Charlie Sifford, the First Black Pga Golfer
Full press release follows: